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Obama cuts short India trip, heads to Saudi Arabia

24 January 2015, 16:04

Washington - President Barack Obama will cut short his three-day trip to India and visit Saudi Arabia to pay respects after the death of King Abdullah, U.S. and Indian officials said Saturday.

The schedule change, announced shortly before Obama left for India, means the president will skip plans to see the Taj Mahal, and instead pay a call on an influential U.S. ally in the volatile Mideast.

The king, who died Friday, was aggressive in trying to check the spreading power of Saudi Arabia's chief rival, Iran. Obama visited the ailing monarch in his desert compound last March.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president and first lady Michelle Obama would travel to Riyadh on Tuesday and meet with new Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Vice President Joe Biden was to lead a U.S. delegation, but Earnest said the White House changed plans after determining that Biden's trip coincided with Obama's departure from India. Biden will remain in Washington.

The more substantive portions of Obama's trip to India appeared unlikely to change.

Obama was due to arrive Sunday for meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then attend Monday's annual Republic Day festivities, which mark the day in 1950 that India's constitution came into force.

Relations between the world's two largest democracies are strengthening after recent tensions. Obama and Modi developed a good rapport during the prime minister's visit in Washington last fall.

Modi's invitation to Obama caught some in the U.S. off guard.

"It took us by some surprise," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser. "There's a great affinity between the United States and India and our people, but there's also a history that is complicated and that would have made it seem highly unlikely that a U.S. president would be sitting with India's leaders at their Republic Day ceremony."

While in India, Obama also planned to meet with Modi and attend an economic summit with U.S. and Indian business leaders.

Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit India twice while in office; he also traveled there in 2010 for an economic summit.

His trip was expected to be heavy on symbolism and lighter on substantive advances, though climate change, economics and defense ties are on the agenda. Still, U.S. and Indian officials appear to agree that even a symbolic show of solidarity would mark progress after recent difficulties.

While military cooperation and U.S. defense sales have grown, Washington has been frustrated by India's failure to open up to more foreign investment and to address complaints alleging intellectual property violations. India's liability legislation has also prevented U.S. companies from capitalizing on a landmark civil nuclear agreement between the two countries in 2008.

Relations hit a new low in 2013 when India's deputy consul general was arrested and strip-searched in New York over allegations that she lied on visa forms to bring her maid to the U.S. while paying the woman a pittance. The official's treatment caused outrage in New Delhi, and India retaliated against U.S. diplomats.

Modi's hosting of Obama caps a year of high-profile diplomatic maneuvers by a leader denied a U.S. visa in 2005, three years after religious riots killed more than 1,000 Muslims in the Indian state where he was the top elected official.

The visit ties in with Modi's election promise that he would turn around Asia's third-largest economy. It also could send a message to Pakistan and China — India's closest neighbors and rivals — that Modi has a powerful ally in the United States.

The White House plans to push India on climate change, particularly after reaching a sweeping agreement with China on limiting carbon emissions. Accompanying Obama are several U.S. business leaders hoping to forge new partnerships with India.

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- AP


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